LEAGUE CUP

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Sunderland sends United to a new low

ALL NEW LOW
Manchester United faces a tough climb to enter European football next season.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Sometimes 180 minutes of drudgery can end up yielding a few moments of cup magic as compensation. So it was when Sunderland traveled to Old Trafford clinging onto their 2-1 aggregate lead over Manchester United in the Capital One League Cup semifinals.

Before the rainy night was out, they would have given up their lead, taken the game to extra time -- away goals don’t count until after extra time in this competition -- scored an apparent 119th-minute winner; given up a 121st-minute equalizer; missed their first two penalties; watched as goalkeeper Vito Mannone became the hero by saving the final penalty; and overcome 10-1 bookies’ odds to win.

And so United is out of the last competition they had a reasonable chance of winning -- not to mention their best shot at qualifying for European football next year -- and this foul season of theirs decays yet further. Sunderland, meanwhile, continue their turnaround as they book a date at Wembley Stadium in the March 2 League Cup final against United’s cross-town rivals Manchester City.

Only the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League now remain for David Moyes’ men, who were bounced from the FA Cup by Swansea City in their first game. But they clearly haven’t the horses to compete in Europe, in spite of their soft Round of 16 draw in Olympiakos, and domestically they are seventh, 14 points off league leaders Arsenal.

On the day when a rumor arose, spread and was seemingly made manifest that United would pay Chelsea a king’s ransom -- a reported $60 million -- for their disused playmaker Juan Mata, in hopes that he could bail out this dreadful season of theirs, the need for the Spaniard was evident.

With the interminable wait for the return of forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie ongoing, the keys to the United offense were once again handed to teen prodigy Adnan Januzaj. But the Belgo-Bosnian remains as scintillating as he is raw, and he never did manage to get the engine humming. He was, however, involved in the only goal scored in regular time.

In the 36th minute, Shinji Kagawa brought a ball down beautifully in the Sunderland box. He waited for a spell and chipped his pass towards Darren Fletcher at the far post. The Scot volleyed his effort off the post, after which Danny Welbeck’s rebound was blocked. United did earn a corner, though, which Januzaj sent at Welbeck, who flicked it on for Johnny Evans to head home uncontested at the far post.

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In front of 10,000 very vocal traveling fans and facing elimination, Sunderland nevertheless maintained the composure they have steadily accrued ever since their loose cannon of a manager Paolo Di Canio was relieved in favor of the more sensible Gus Poyet. United’s Javier Hernandez was occasionally dangerous on balls over the top, but the Black Cats snuffed those chances out pretty quickly.

At the other end, meanwhile, Marcos Alonso and Fabio Borini were pests to the United defense, making unfettered runs up the wings. Sunderland weren’t supposed to have anything to lose, after all. They are in a relegation tussle; Old Trafford is the so-called Theater of Dreams. And United’s form frayed yet again as the game wore on and Sunderland gained in confidence in a venue where they hadn’t won in 45 years.

But then this year it’s been the wont of teams with decades-long winless streaks at Old Trafford to break them. Everton, Newcastle and Swansea did it in recent months. And Sunderland couldn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t either.

With only the ever-dangerous Januzaj to fret about, whose immense ball skills are undercut by his bouts of poor decision-making, Sunderland could venture forward for long stretches, pinging the ball deep and wide as they encircled United in their own third. On these forays, they got plenty of chances to go ahead. But it wouldn’t be quite so simple.

Januzaj put a good scare into Sunderland in the 102nd minute, with the game having crept into extra time, by winning his tussle with Wes Brown on the break and putting Hernandez through on goal. But the underused Mexican shot early and wide, wasting what would turn out to be United’s big chance.

Amidst a late Sunderland offensive, Ki Sung-Yueng found Phil Bardsley -- who had forced Ryan Giggs into scoring an own goal in the first leg -- at the edge of the box. The onetime United player hit a hard, low shot right at goalkeeper David De Gea, who inexplicably let the ball skip off his fists and curve in off the post.

In injury time of the final half of extra time, however, Januzaj had one more fit of brilliance to contribute. He combined with Chris Smalling in the box and hit a cross. Hernandez stretched onto it and sent the ball in off the cross bar to send the game to penalties.

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Craig Gardner and Steven Fletcher would fail to convert Sunderland’s first two efforts. But Mannone saved four of the five he faced -- including Rafael’s decisive miss -- and watched two more fizz over his crossbar. Of course.

United’s season just won’t turn around for them. Ahead of the game, midfielder Tom Cleverley conceded that United had to “rethink our targets for the year.” But he also professed hope. “We are still well in the Champions League and are in the semifinal of the cup,” he said. “We have to shoot ourselves up the league, then hopefully we can end the season positively.”

Realistically, only the league remains. And for them to bring that to a “positive” end, an awful lot will need to change. More, perhaps, than a single acquisition can offer.

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